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Fact from fiction

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THROUGHOUT the US presidential election campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain — and their respective teams and supporters — had done their fair share to discredit the opponent. Some accusations deliberately misrepresented the rival, twisting a comment or a position out of context; others were downright lies.

One can imagine that given the relentless barrage of accusations, American voters would have had a tough time separating fact from fiction.

“Facts have taken a beating in Campaign ’08,” said an Associated Press (AP) report on 3 Nov 2008, a day before polling day. Each candidate, it said, had produced “enduring myths, amplified by their running mates and supporters.”

“Beyond the realm of exaggeration and misrepresentation, omission plays a large part, too, in denying voters important information on what the next president will do.”

Another AP report on 1 Nov said: “With just days to go before the election, gossip, hearsay, innuendo and smears are flying through the internet as gadflies and rumourmongers hope to sway voters before they head to the polls.”

Setting the record straight

Amid the slew of wild allegations, a number of websites such as and started stepping in to clear the air.

With the US economy sliding into recession, each candidate’s economic plan became a hot topic on the hustings. Each had to convince voters that he was more capable than the other to lead the economy out of the woods.

But other than proposing specific measures such as tax cuts for some income brackets and corporations, much effort was put into highlighting the flaws in the opponent’s economic plan.

No bullshit
(© Lynne Lancaster /
One FactCheck analysis examined President-elect Obama’s TV ad on 17 Oct. The ad quoted the Wall Street Journal as saying that Republican rival McCain would fund his health care plan with “major reductions to Medicare and Medicaid”. Senior citizens and low-income households are the two groups that are most affected by these health care programmes. The analysis noted that Obama elaborated on the allegation in a stump speech later, “claiming flatly that seniors would face major medical hardships under McCain.”

The message was off the mark, FactCheck said. “The fact is that McCain has never proposed to cut Medicare benefits, or Medicaid benefits either. Obama’s claim is based on a false reading of a single Wall Street Journal story, amplified by a one-sided, partisan analysis that piles speculation atop misinterpretation,” it said.

“The Journal story in turn was based on an interview with McCain adviser Holtz-Eakin. He said flatly in a conference call with reporters after the ad was released, ‘No service is being reduced. Every beneficiary will in the future receive exactly the benefits that they have been promised from the beginning.’”

Hot topics

FactCheck‘s goal is to hold politicians accountable, monitoring what they say, or is said about them, and checking for factual accuracy. It describes itself as a non-partisan and non-profit advocate for voters, which “aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in US politics.” The website is a project by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and funded primarily by the Annenberg Foundation.

Other than monitoring what politicians say, the website’s Ask FactCheck section fields a range of relevant, and irrelevant, questions from visitors. Some questions have been repeated so often that the website has put them and the answers in a list of hot topics. It appeals to the visitors to scan the list before submitting their queries, in the likely chance that the answers are already there. It also clarifies that it provides answers to questions of fact, not opinions. “We have no answers for ‘what is the meaning of the universe’ questions, nor can we peer into the future to see who’s going to win an election,” it adds.

Some interesting questions, and answers, on FactCheck.

Interestingly, no. There are laws protecting consumers from false ads on products, but bogus claims in political ads are legal. Under the Federal Communications Act, broadcasters who run a candidate’s ads are required to show them uncensored, even if the content is deemed offensive or false.

Politifact's Pants on Fire pic
Politifact’s Pants on Fire
One example cited is the case in 1972, when the Federal Communications Commission forced stations in Georgia to accept a paid political ad from JB Stoner. Stoner, a self-proclaimed “white racist,” was running to be Senator. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People objected to Stoner’s ad, which said “[the] main reason why niggers want integration is because niggers want our white women.” The commission ruled in favour of Stoner, citing freedom of speech. According to the First Amendment to the US Constitution, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”

A clear symptom of Islamophobia in the US is a chain e-mail that claims Obama, whose middle name is Hussein, is a radical Muslim who attended a Wahabi school in Indonesia and took his oath as Senator on the Quran. Another claims he is a racist Christian because he attends the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

The church may describe itself as “a congregation which is Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian,” which “does not apologize for its African roots” and which has a commitment to Africa and to the “historical education of African people in diaspora.” However, none of that makes the church necessarily “racist” or anti-American, FactCheck says.

It also cites statements and reports to substantiate its analysis. These include a white theology professor’s statement that he and other non-blacks were welcomed when they attended the church. Also cited is a CNN report that the school Obama attended as a child in Indonesia was not a radical Islamist school. There’s also a photograph showing Senator Obama swearing on his own Bible.

Pants on fire

Another website that tried to help voters separate fact from fiction in the presidential campaign is PolitiFact, set up by the St Petersburg Times in Florida and Congressional Quarterly (CQ) in Washington, DC.

“Journalists and researchers from the Times and CQ will fact-check the accuracy of speeches, TV ads, interviews and other campaign communications. We’ll publish new findings every day on, and list our sources for all to see,” it said.

PolitiFact… is bolder than previous journalistic fact-checking efforts because we’ll make a call, declaring whether a claim is True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True or False. We even have a special category for the most ridiculous claims that we call Pants on Fire.”

Here’s a sample of its Truth-O-Meter.

Screenshot of The Attack File
The Attack file from Politifact

Then there’s the Flip-O-Meter, which kept tabs on how consistent the candidates and their running mates were, or not. The meter looked at their positions on issues such as offshore drilling, global warming and US troops in Iraq.

screenshot of The Flip-O-Meter
Flip-O-Meter from Politifact

We can do with a Truth-O-Meter and Flip-O-Meter in Malaysia. Local politicians from both sides of the divide can be just as adept at flip-flopping. And we don’t need a trend of individuals swearing to high heaven on holy books to prove their claims. Just let the police, Anti-Corruption Agency and judiciary do their jobs without fear or favour. Hold all politicians accountable by verifying and questioning the allegations they make against their rivals. No matter which party they are from.

Cindy Tham is business development manager at The Nut Graph. She’s also interested in how different people and organisations promote their ideas, brands, products and services on the internet, whether for commercial or non-commercial reasons.

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